Safe Writing

safeSafe Writing

I know I’ve been driveling on about appearing naked on the page and telling your emotional, if not literal, truth. I absolutely believe that this is the way to compelling story-telling. But it is exhausting. And frustrating. And makes you long to retreat into safe writing.

What is safe writing?

It’s your fallback position. It’s what you find easy to write—whether action, romance, or humor. We all have comfort zones where we feel that we’ve mastered the craft involved and the subject no longer terrifies, if it ever did.

I know a very fine writer who could write sensuously and sensitively about sex. This is no mean feat—most of us have trouble with this type of scene, worried it will be too much or too little; too crass or too vague. But she mastered them. Except for a problem which can be true of any type of fallback writing. Often it seemed that when she had a choice to go deeper into the characters, she would veer off into a sex scene. And since she did it very well, the reader was distracted away from what might have been a more fruitful area.

I’m not suggesting avoiding what you’re good at, but it’s important to be aware when you might be using it as a crutch. Or, better analogy, a scenic route that allows you to avoid the main road.

Why do writers do this?

Risk-free writing is self-protective

I think a common reason is the one illustrated above. Going deeper into the characters usually means going deeper into yourself. Which is undoubtedly scary. A character’s conflict with her mother may bring up painful memories of your life. To avoid revisiting these uncomfortable feelings, you instead create a mother and daughter who get along, support each other, and have each other’s backs. Which you probably can’t write convincingly as you didn’t have the experience of that. So, might not be good writing but it protects you.

Unfortunately, these painful areas are often where the gold is. When you use your experience of similar thoughts or feelings to inform the characters’ psyches, they ring truer because they are truer. Remembering being abandoned and allowing these feelings to be with you as you write can make powerful writing.

But only if you are willing not to play it safe.

Or derivative

The other, more practical, reason to avoid safe writing is that it is often bad writing. Protecting yourself from unpleasant feelings keeps you on the surface. And then the piece feels derivative because you’re not bringing your authentic self to it. The unique voice and perspective that makes you worth reading.

Do I need to be wild and crazy?

No, you don’t need to be wild and crazy in your writing. Unless that is actually you.

But there are two things that you can try to get out of safe writing.

The first is play. Play with what a scene or a character might look and feel like if it was more based on you than on some ideal. Don’t have to use it in your final manuscript but run up a trial balloon.

The second is to be brave. Say you try the experiment and you find (as I think you might) that the worts-and-all character which reflects some part of you is more absorbing than your original writing. Take a deep breath and see if you can use your true feelings as you write.

I know—back to exhausting and scary. But worth it when the real you shows up in your writing.

Acquiring Author Credibility


Acquiring Author Credibility

In the last post, we discussed the concept of the authority of the author.  In general, I think it’s your ability to allow your reader to sink happily into the world you have created for as long as you want her there. In this post, I’ll make a stab at delineating how you acquire this credibility. Truthfully, I’m a little nervous about this as it’s a difficult idea to pars. But let’s give it a try.

Some parts of author credibility

I think of these as necessary but not sufficient conditions for your reader to trust you.

Expertise. Well, obviously. If you’re writing historical fiction, you make the reader uneasy if you write, “Sir Galahad said, ‘Get your buns in gear.’” (unless the intent is comic). Similarly, even in science fiction, violating basic principles of the physical universe need careful and well-reasoned explanations for the reader to buy it.

Confident handling of structure. This is where mastery of craft comes in. Your ability to seamlessly handle the mechanics of story-telling like the judicious use of description, dialogue, showing not telling, etc. The novel should flow seemingly effortlessly to its inevitable close. You accomplish this only by a lot of effort and technical proficiency.

Believability. The tale itself needs to be believable or at least, the hard to believe parts are carefully explained. This is also true of depicting human interactions. You don’t want to kick the reader out of the continuous dream by having her think “Really? Would he actually do that?”

Belief in your story.  You presumably believe in your story because you’re writing it. And you continue to do so despite the occasional quiver in confidence. However, you can show your belief in the story by avoiding bombast—that is, the desire to tell your reader how she should feel about what you are writing. Instead, you just show the events and let the reader come to her own conclusions. You believe in your plot enough that it doesn’t need these artificial supports.

Belief in self. We all have occasional attacks of writer’s block, or are discouraged by how hard this all is, or are convinced that everything I write is junk. Belief in self will allow you to tough through these wobbles and keep writing. Without it, there will be no stories over which to have authority.

Is this enough?

I wish I could say with confidence that I had wrestled all the components of author credibility to the ground. But I’m pretty sure I haven’t because there is a know-it-when-you-see-it residual which resists analysis.

This is the magic I have talked about. It is that indefinable fairy dust that sometimes you can sprinkle over your writing and sometimes you can’t. But you keep writing in the hopes that your Muse or inner spirit or the drop into the right space, will give you the magic. And by the by, credibility, too.

Authority of the Author—What is it?


Authority of the Author—What is it?

Sounds a little New Age, doesn’t it? Authority of the Author.  It is, kind of. I think the best way to start is with an example.

As always, I remember reading this but can’t remember the source so you’ll to have to take my word for it.

In her earlier writing, Margaret Atwood published a short story about girls at a summer camp who collaborate on writing a novel. A bad, clichéd one as it turned out. The humor is in how inept it is.

But what would have happened if the writer herself had been a bad writer? The joke would fall flat or disappear because the reader wouldn’t see a difference between the quality of the writing of the novel-in-progress and that of how the story itself was being told. For the short story to work, Atwood had to establish that she herself as a good writer before she introduced the girls’ efforts.

She does this by her vivid description of the setting and the dialogue through which she introduces the idea of the group effort, among other ways. Atwood has established her authority to tell the story.

What is this authority of the author?

The Atwood example is the clearest I’ve found where a lack of authorial authority makes a difference. But it gets murky beyond that. Honestly, there’s not even unanimous agreement on what it means.

Brooke Warner in her Huffington post article believes “getting published writing under your belt (including books, of course) is the key to true authority.” That doesn’t quite sit right with me as I’ve read plenty of unpublished pieces which have authority.

The blog Wistful Writer comes closest to a definition I agree with:

Authority is important in any sort of writing, but especially so in literary fiction. Because the writer is creating a world that is essentially made from thin air, the reader must feel safe and confident that the world she is entering into is real and true. The reader must be able to trust the writer in order to engage with the work. As such, the writer absolutely must work hard in order to gain the reader’s trust.

However, the blog then gives an example which doesn’t actually capture the concept for me.

Memoirs should have this power

Memoir writers presumably have this completely covered. They certainly are experts on their own story. They have sort of spontaneous authority, no?

But even with this presumed knowhow, memoirs can also be seen as self-serving, light on truth, or verging on the unbelievable. So they don’t automatically get a free pass into being trusted.

Defining authority primarily as a writer’s expertise on the topic of the narrative doesn’t feel right to me. While I agree a writer needs to know what he’s talking about in both content and craft, I think authority encompasses a realm which I may not be able to adequately define but will nevertheless give a try in the next post.

But for a final word:

Why does it matter?

Really, who cares if you have authority? Big deal.

But actually, it is. If you do, your reader will relax into your story and go willingly where you want to take her. You have put her in the continuous dream state.

Authority has another, practical advantage. With it, you can probably rely on your readers to stick with you through bumpy/puzzling plot bits or necessary but slow scenes. So they can experience your dazzling ending.


Flashback Other Stuff


Flashback Other Stuff

In the previous post, I discussed the importance of the flashback. Here I will cover some of the more mechanical issues when using this technique.

Flashback order

It’s not a hard and fast rule but sometimes it helps the reader if the flashbacks themselves occur chronologically. That is, if the flashback scenes have a particular sequence, it’s less confusing if they’re presented that way.

As I say, not hard and fast. Sometimes the narrative demands an out-of-order presentation. But if so, cue the reader in some way where they are in the flashback story.


As I mentioned in the previous post, flashbacks should not take up the bulk of the story and as Carol Shields points out in Startle and Illuminate, there should be a reason for switching to them.

And while they need to be used frugally, neither can you use just one and then never again. Readers have some unconscious expectations of fiction and this is one of them—flashbacks are used in multiples or not at all.

You don’t need a big flag to signal a memory

Writers sometimes have trouble figuring out how to introduce a flashback. They often use phrases like “she remembered” or “he thought of his childhood.” Not egregious sins but can be a bit clunky.

It’s pretty easy to indicate a flashback. Just use a different tense. If you’re writing in the present, use the past. If the past, the pluperfect (‘had’). Reverse when you want to come out.

If you’re really worried that your reader won’t get it (and this isn’t usual since they are often smarter than us), double space or use a few asterisks to denote the switch.

By the by, you don’t need to use the different tense for the whole flashback scene. This is particularly true of the pluperfect. A lot of “he had had a problem” and “she hadn’t wanted to go,” is cumbersome and somewhat irritating. Use the pluperfect a couple of times at the top of the flashback and then switch back to the past.

At what point can they be used?

The placement of flashbacks, like any other technique which can slow the forward action of the plot (e.g. description), needs to be judicious.

Unless there is some really compelling reason in the plot that the character goes into a flashback at a moment of tension or drama, don’t do it. You dissipate whatever excitement you’re building by subtly pulling the reader out of the continuous dream you’re building for him.

If you need the character to reflect on the plot development or action sequence she has just experienced, by all means do it. But put her in a scene after the action where she can show her feelings or analysis of the situation. Just before falling asleep, riding the bus, waiting for someone or something, etc.

P.S. I can think of one time when flashbacks during the action are appropriate and that’s when the character is experiencing PTSD-like events. But then, these need to be part of the plot.

Anyhow, there you have it—the mechanics of flashback. Now let’s get back to the present.




Okay, so maybe your flashbacks don’t go back to pre-history, but they are an important component of any piece, particularly a novel but also memoir or a long short story.

I know you know this, so humor me while I provide an explanation. A flashback is a scene or scenes in a longer fiction piece which take the reader to a point in the narrative which occurred prior to the time in which the tale itself is situated. There are a whole bunch of good reasons to use them.

Flashbacks can be great support for the main plot

Just-in-time for the reader

One of the best reasons is to provide information/background/explanation the reader requires to understand the scene. This avoids the deadly piling on, at the beginning of the story, of all the history and research the reader will need.  You can easily lose people because they don’t yet understand the context in which these details fit. Much better to give them info at the point they need it. Enter the flashback.

An example (italics for main story; flashback in red).

The children were screaming and running around in what seemed a chaotic tag. The adults were in the kitchen—the clink of the glasses rising even above the din. Alice sighed.

It hadn’t always been so. What she remembered most were the silent mornings where you were supposed to be reading your Bible and contemplating your sins. She tried, she really did, but it was hard not to see the toboggan-ready hill of snow just outside her window.

So, if it is important to understand the contrast between Alice’s present reality and her past, best to keep the two together rather than a description at the beginning of the olden days.

Fill out a character

You may want to make the character more vivid or real by providing bits of his personal history to explain his actions in the ‘present’ of the novel.

“Why did you do that?” Veronica yelled.

Jerry turned away and walked out of the room into the sunlight.

It had been snowing that day. Heavy, wet snow. Great for snowballs. A bitch for shoveling. Nevertheless, he was looking forward to the day. Gemma was sure to be at class todayAnd then you go on to explain why Jerry acted so strangely.


A story that starts at the beginning and goes through in chronological order to the hopefully satisfying end can be perfectly okay. For example, if you are writing an action thriller with a taciturn hero, flashbacks may be out of place.

But for most stories, they mix things up in a pleasurable way for the reader. The bouncing around can provide an enjoyable variety in the form of the story.

Get boring bits out of the way

There are bits of any novel which are a drag both for you to write and for the reader to read but are nevertheless important to the story. You may need to explain the history of a critical object or element. A short flashback at the point the info is needed can sometimes make the conveyance easier to read and sometimes to write.

Use sparingly

While they can provide variety, too many flashbacks can confuse the narrative, sometimes to the point of being unsure what the main story is. A large number also tend to annoy the reader as it begins to feel as if they’re impeding the main action.

So, flashbacks are good but not always flashbacks. There are other more mechanical dos and don’ts that I’ll cover in the next post.